Here’s Steve McQueen at the peak of his powers in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a film centering on a marathon, high stakes poker game set in the Depression-era 1930s, directed by Norman Jewison. It’s not a great film by any means, but a solid period piece of 1960s genre work, with a powerhouse cast: McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn and veteran musician/actor Cab Calloway. As Kevin Hagopian notes, the script is by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern; it was Lardner’s first major studio work since his 1947 blacklisting as one of The Hollywood Ten.
Sam Peckinpah was supposed to direct the film, but wanted to shoot it in black and white, among other things, and was forced out by producer Martin Ransohoff soon after shooting started, leaving it to Jewison to finish. It’s a resolutely commercial film, but McQueen is riveting to watch, and as he always maintained, he’s better at reacting than acting; Robinson, McQueen’s chief opponent, more than holds his own against McQueen in all their scenes together — which really are the bulk of the picture — and handles most of the dialogue. Despite a certain predictability — even with its supposed “twist” finish — the film is better than average mainstream entertainment, and one of the best poker films ever made.